Torture, US democracy and the rule of law

I’m trying to think through the obscenity of the US torture program, and my fears about what the Obama Administration’s non-response tells us about the health of the US democracy.

After all the terrible things I read yesterday, I was still sort of shocked to read this account, titled, “I Can’t Be Forgiven for Abu Ghraib: The Torture Report Reminds Us of What America Was,” by someone who admits to torturing people at Abu Ghraib.

That the author, Eric Fair, is haunted by having tortured people in the service of the US government is understandable and human. His commitment to talking widely about what he and other US torturers did is commendable.

But at the same time, it stuns me that essentially he’s freely admitting to committing crimes against humanity (as have Dick Cheney and George W Bush). That they so casually admit that US government representatives “tortured some folks” (as Obama said recently) demonstrates how greatly the taboo against torture in the US has been weakened.

Unless the people responsible for this obscene program of torture, rape and murder of prisoners are brought to justice, the torture report is about what America is, not what it was. And it is a dark, lawless place, where police hardly ever even face trial for killing citizens, and a free pass to torture and wreck the economy is available to those lucky enough to be rich or in a position of authority.

For us non-Americans, it’s often easy to criticize the United States because we don’t have to live there. It’s a lot harder to criticize your own society, which is why we should celebrate Americans like the authors of the torture report, Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, people who have spoken truth to power at great risk to themselves, and even comedians like Jon Stewart, John Oliver and Stephen Colbert. Calling out your own government’s injustices is hard. Most people shy away from any type of conflict. Standing up against the power of the government and the wrath of your fellow citizens, even for basic human decency, requires more personal fortitude than most of us have.

We Canadians are as bad or worse in speaking truth to power here at home. A quick check of Maher Arar’s Wikipedia page confirms my recollection that no individual Canadian has been held accountable for Canada’s role in his rendition to Syria and almost-certain torture. Stephen Harper shut Parliament down in 2009 in order to avoid dealing with the question of whether Canadian soldiers who transferred Afghan prisoners to Afghan authorities knew the prisoners would be tortured and thus committed war crimes. Our own complicity and lack of accountability is something to keep in mind when thinking about the impunity faced by US torturers.

But, like it or not, the United States – or, rather, the idea of the United States – plays an outsized role in the world, often for good. For all its hypocrisy, the idea of the United States – government by the people, for the people, and the rule of law – is a good one worth striving for. In the past decade, and especially the past few weeks, the possibility of rule of law and government by the people, for the people, has been dealt one blow after another. Again, it’s one where police killings are hardly ever brought to justice, the poor and black are jailed far out of proportion to the rest of US society, bankers can engage in illegal fleecing of individuals’ life savings and be rewarded for it, and leaders who freely admit to torturing other human beings are given a pass by a constitutional lawyer. If I set these facts in front of my students, they’d think I was talking about the dictatorship in China. This is where we’re at.

Just so there’s no confusion: I’ve been a huge admirer of the United States. I think their system of checks and balances (minus the money) is at least as good as, and in many ways better than, the Westminster system as it’s developed in Canada. Its vibrant culture and commitment to free speech is inspiring. I even attended Obama’s first inauguration, sharing that cold January day’s historic moment with a million ecstatic, patriotic and hopeful Americans. I was there because I thought Obama’s election, driven by a grassroots movement, represented the American capacity for renewal, that even though the country had suffered through eight years of torture, stupid wars and criminal greed on Wall Street, its democracy and rule of law was strong enough to make it better.

I no longer believe that. The only thing that keeps me from total despair is, as Andrew Sullivan noted yesterday, that the US system of government is still healthy enough to produce from within such a damning document, what he calls “arguably the most important act of public service in holding our government accountable in modern times,” and that some Americans are still willing to stand up for bedrock values like human dignity and the rule of law:

Everything that happened in this damning report is because of Americans. But the report itself is a function of other Americans determined to push back against evil done in this country’s name. Those Americans have been heroes in exposing this horror from the get-go, and they include many CIA agents who knew full well what this foul program was doing to their and America’s reputation.

Still, yesterday was a dark day. I might be overreacting. If we see indictments based on this report, particularly of high-ranking officials and not just the hands-on torturers, we’ll know how healthy the US democracy is. If not, then the American people will have their work cut out for them, if they want to keep their Republic.

For better and worse, so much of “the West” takes its moral cues from the United States. Left unchecked, the crumbling of the idea that the rule of law is even possible will spread outward, to countries like Canada. And unless you’re rich or politically connected, this can’t be a good thing.

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